2014…a few odd thoughts on making Nova Scotia better

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As we head into another year, I thought I’d add a few ideas that have been clattering around in my head that just might make Nova Scotia a better place to live.

Some are old, some are new, some could be done tomorrow, others need either money and/or time to implement. I’d like to hear if you think these are things the new Liberal government could look at to improve our economy and the lives of the people in our province.

Finance Minister Diana Whalen must give a clear picture of the state of the provinces finances for those who don’t hold Masters degrees in public finance and accounting. While better than some previous efforts, the latest financial update proved once again that government officials and politicians struggle to communicate public finance, especially regarding the relationship to our debt. The Chronicle Herald’s Bob Howse did an admirable job of outlining this in his opinion piece last August. Surely to God with the battalion of communications staff the province has on the payroll, voters can be given better access and insight to the decision-making process than is now provided.

Nova Scotia should aim to be the best place to open a small business in Canada. According to the CFIB’s latest Nova Scotia Business Barometer®, twenty-five per cent of owners now say the state of their business is ‘bad’ versus only 35 percent who say it is ‘good’. There are a number of battles being waged in this province by small against government. This includes poorly thought changes to Workman’s Comp, an inability to streamline the apprenticeship process or get a handle on workplace safety issues.

High taxes and unnecessary red tape also create an environment that drives small business away. Attracting big employers to set up shop may make great headlines but small business remains the backbone of the provincial economy. Nova Scotia Business Development Program is a good start…promote it aggressively, create a better environment for entrepreneurs and then get the hell out-of-the-way.

Meaningful reductions in the size of the public spending cannot come soon enough. If this is done by eliminating revenue (read: lower taxes) and forcing balanced budgets, then so be it. The Harper government came under great criticism for its reduction of the GST by 2 points, eliminating billions in federal revenue. This left Finance Minister Jim Flaherty with the daunting challenge of balancing a budget without the additional windfall of consumption tax.One can argue the merits of the GST versus other forms of taxation, but in the end it meant there was less cash floating around Ottawa to spend.

Government spending in this province has grown from 6 billion to over 10 billion in the past ten years. Feel better served by government? Unless meaningful measures to restrict spending are enforced, the public sector will continue to balloon.

One small way to adjust this continued siphoning of money from the pockets of people is allowing Atlantic Lottery Corporation to grow a robust off-shore online gambling business and begin the reduction and replacement of localized gambling revenue. While it’s a voluntary tax, it is none-the-less emptying the pockets of Nova Scotians for little or no net benefit.

If we are indeed going to accept that government should profit from gambling, then let those gamblers come from other jurisdictions feed the beast. Constrict local gambling revenues, especially VLTs and allow offshore betting under the ALCs “Responsible Gambling” protocols.

Set defined timelines for the twinning of major highway arteries.The previous government’s efforts at de-politicizing the paving and highway infrastructure growth process was a step in the right direction. If plans are in the works, let the Minister responsible know what’s going on so they can answer direct questions about when work will begin on important arteries throughout the province. Then get the earth movers moving.

Set clear timelines and reporting structures for the creation of a universal medical information system in the province. It is perhaps the most critical piece of the puzzle to cut costs and create greater efficiency in the medicare system. Reducing the number of Health Authorities to cut unnecessary administrative cost is useful, but unless everyone gets on the same page with the transfer of information this restructuring will be a dogs breakfast.

The Department of Community Services requires a significant rethink. As the third largest cost behind Health and Education, Community Services delivers programming that is essential to those in need. Lumping disabilities in with social welfare blurs the line between providing a hand up to those temporarily in need and those who rely of government access to quality of life.

In Saskatchewan, the Brad Wall government has created a disabilities strategy which is actually consulting with those who live with cognitive, intellectual and physical disabilities. They are also separating disabilities initiatives from social welfare to make sure those with challenges are afforded proper housing, care and dignity.The Saskatchewan mantra is to be the best place to live in Canada for people living with disabilities. We should challenge that ideal.

On the really wacky side, what harm could there be in examining the establishment of a freeport or free economic zone in this province. Want to generate tourism traffic and local economic activity in a poor area? Want to attract multinational companies? Giving up a small part of tax revenue would be greatly offset by international traffic and spin-off benefits for surrounding communities. Who knows, maybe it could be in Freeport…mmm, maybe not.

So as we head into 2014, perhaps we can kick the can down the road toward a more prosperous and compassionate Nova Scotia.

What do you think?

2013…The parts that didn’t suck

I was interested to read Tim Bousquet’s column in The Coast looking back on 2013. It was called The Year of Suck. Every year, in the last week or two of December, journalists, publications, radio and TV and digital media outlets all take a little time to reflect on the last 365 days.

Maybe there is some merit in gathering all the events of the past year together and vomiting them out in one fell swoop, but beyond filling pages or airspace while people take some time off, I don’t see much benefit in the practice.

The historical timeline rolls on. There isn’t a start or finish date. It’s obviously a continuum, but thinking we can hit some sort of mythical reset button on January first, putting one year behind us and hoping for a better year ahead is a quaint convention. Hope i suppose that by comparing one 12 month sequence against another will allow us to reboot or respawn in a new life to take on the next calendar year.

There was a lot to be depressed about in 2013, but there were also a lot of good things that happened. This is not meant to be a comprehensive, or particularly insightful review, but I thought taking a moment to look back upon some of the more positive moments of the past year might be helpful…especially when most of these year-enders leave you with the feeling that the world is spiraling into hell in the proverbial hand basket.

So what was the good news?

2013 brought us, in no specific order, terrorism and the War in North-West Pakistan, the Northern Mali conflict, the Nigerian Sharia conflict, the Iraqi insurgency, terrorism in Kenya, the M23 rebellion in Congo, South Sudan internal conflict, the Sudanese nomadic conflicts, the Syrian civil war, the Central African Republic conflict, the Korean crisis, the Golan Heights clashes, the Gaza–Israel conflict, Insurgency in the North Caucasus, the Kurdish–Turkish conflict, the Al-Qaeda insurgency in Yemen, the Mexican Drug War, the South Thailand insurgency and some unrest in China. I’m sure i’v missed a few but the good news is none of these conflicts, insurgencies or wars include the geographic positioning of Canada.

So outside of CSIS identifying and averting a potential  Al-Qaeda attack, as residents of this planet we can consider ourselves among the blessed.

Yes there were plenty of things that irritated and vexed us as a population, but a $90,000 dollar scandal involving a corpulent Senator and a chief of staff really pales in comparison when the rest of the world is dealing with bombings, shootings, gang rapes, mass imprisonments, political murders, torture and a myriad of other seemingly sub-human activities.

It’s almost mind numbing to see the banality that leads newscasts and occupies our attention on the front pages.

So here, for those of us that would prefer to avert our eyes from all the ugliness of 2013 is a short list of some of the things which moved humanity slightly forward in the past year.

In January, to the surprise of absolutely nobody, the U.S. Senate approved a deal to avert general tax hikes and spending cuts otherwise known as the “fiscal cliff”, the imaginary precipice that we would all spill over, plunging the world into certain economic doom. By anybody’s measure, that’s a good thing.

Shortly thereafter Pakistani schoolgirl blogger Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the face by the Taliban, was discharged from hospital. She has gone on to be a powerful figure representing the rights of women in the region. In spite of the corruption of the Afghan government and the uncertainty around the withdrawal of military forces in the region, she remains a flicker of hope that there might be generational change in that country.

In the same frame of reference, police in India charge five men with the murder of a 23-year-old woman who was gang-raped on a bus in Delhi. As hard as it may be to believe, in the context of India, those charges actually represent progress. Before we get too self-righteous, we should also point out the Rehteah Parsons case was not our proudest moment as Canadians. The good news here is meaningful steps were taken in 2013 to address institutionalized ambivalence toward violence against women. We all have work to do.

Also early in the year the NHL and the NHLPA reach an agreement that ended the 2012–13 lockout averting the cancellation of the 2012–13 NHL season. Now we can continue to fork out billions of dollars every year to millionaires and billionaires so they can offer us some sense of national pride. The good news is, the Leafs don’t suck quite as much as they did…when they weren’t playing.

Also in science, in spite of the forecasts that have much of the eastern seaboard of the North America devastated by super-storms and rising sea levels, we dodged another bullet by having the quietest hurricane season in the last 50 years. It won’t do much to help David Suzuki raise money, but for the rest of us, it’s good news.

The near-Earth asteroid 99942 Apophis missed the Earth. European astronomers noted it’s bigger than previously thought. The good news, NASA effectively ruled out a 2036 Earth impact for the same asteroid. Again, some disappointing for the apocalypse predictors, but for the rest of the world we can breathe a little easier for another half-century or so.

Lance Armstrong was outed for doping. Clearly a good thing. The only problem this created was what to do with all those little yellow bracelets.

The Carnival Triumph, one of humanity’s great monuments to excess consumption, had a fire in the engine room. The fire was automatically extinguished, but it results in a loss of power and propulsion.  As cruise ship disasters go, not a big deal. Some folks were not able to lose any more money on the slots or watch bad stage renditions of Oklahoma!‎ or Cabaret. There were no casualties or injuries to passengers or crew…we’ll call that a draw.

It was also announced in 2013 that Boston Dynamics upgraded the prototype United States Army robot BigDog with an arm strong enough to hurl cinderblocks. If this is the way modern warfare is going we can all count our blessings.

On the religion front, Giving his first audience at the Vatican, Pope Francis tells journalists he wants “a poor Church, for the poor”. René Brülhart, director of the Vatican’s Financial Intelligence Authority had no comment on how the church might become “poorer”. The Economist estimates that the church spent about $171,600,000,000 in 2010. They could probably afford to cut a billion or two to become more “austere”.

Scientists in California announced they now have a 3D human printer which can replicate human tissue. Among those who are rumoured to have purchased one of the devices is the Toronto Star. According to sources should anything happen to Rob Ford, the Star will be able to replicate him to have something to continue to write about. Also in 2013, Rob Ford deposed the Dos Equis guy as The World’s Most Interesting Man.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional and in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the US Constitution.  Same-sex marriage also became legal in England and Wales after the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill received Royal Assent. Another sign the developed world is stumbling slowly but steadily out of the 1950’s.

Again this year, nobody dies as the result of fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant…meanwhile 129,000 people died from smoking-related causes in Japan. Not a single environmental group takes up smoking as a cause. Incidentally, Taiwan Power Company’s Jinshan Nuclear Power Plant has been leaking radioactive water for three years. There is however a rumour that “radiation” is slowly making its way across the Pacific Ocean and will impact the coast of British Columbia. While not a single death has been  attributed to Fukushima so far, 170,000 cases of skin cancer each year are linked to indoor tanning…we’re yet to see anybody dressed in a radiation suit outside Billy Bob’s Beach-o-Rama.

NASA also made a couple of interesting announcement through the year about goings on outside our solar system.  Voyager 1 space probe left the solar system becoming the first man-made object to reach interstellar space. At the same time Scientists with NASA’s planet-hunting Kepler mission announced the discovery of 833 new planet candidates bringing the total number of candidate worlds to 3,538. Of the 104 planets in the habitable zone, 10 of them are about the size of Earth. The good news is scientists believe there may a strong case to be made there is intelligent life in the universe, having all but given up hope of finding any on this planet.

So here’s to a fabulous 2014. The good news just keeps on coming.

Driving Home for Christmas

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There’s something special about driving home on Christmas Eve in Nova Scotia. Home may be where the heart is but the country roads of Nova Scotia bring wherever that may be more clearly into focus.

Today I spent an hour driving the highway from Chester through New Ross to Kentville. It’s Trunk 12 for those looking to find it on Google maps.

The same weather system that brought all the misery of powerless, cold, dark nights to much of Eastern Canada, kissed the trees with a coating of icy, glistening beauty stretching through 80 kilometers of winding country road.

The pavement was bare. I think I may have met three cars along the way. I turned the radio on to hear a few family greetings on the CBC and a bit of cheesy Christmas music, but for the most part the trip was accompanied only by the sound of my tires on wet pavement and the occasional slap of a windshield wiper to clear the accumulating mist.

It was glorious.

I’ve made the drive to Annapolis Valley dozens of times every year. But Christmas Eve is always a bit different. There was a small bag of parcels for my Mum and family tucked beside the 45 gallon oil barrel tied down in the back of the jeep.

She uses these barrels to burn important documents in her backyard. According to my Mum, empty 45 gallon oil barrels are gold in this part of the world. I guess in rural Nova Scotia, burning old credit card bills is a priority.

It didn’t really matter what was in the car, it was the mission of delivery that made the day.

I remember in 1985 I left at midnight after my radio show to make the hour and a half drive on the 101 from Halifax to Berwick. In the back seat was a monstrosity of a centerpiece for the family dinner table. It was comprised of three red candles, anthereum, roses, bird of paradise, pineapple and God know what else, assembled by one of the more flamboyant florists in the city. I think it was 6 feet long and at least 18 inches wide.

Squeezing it into the back of my car I couldn’t imagine a more spectacular delivery.

When I carried the floral arrangement to the farmhouse door at 1:30 in the morning the fire was still burning and the house smelled of all the best things of Christmas. I still, remember the look on my mothers face when she saw this arrangement that looked something between a tropical garden and some bizarre funeral arrangement being squeezed into the kitchen along with whatever other bags I had dragged with me.

It’s “fantastic” she said. Probably the only word that would be sufficiently ambiguous to graciously receive something of its magnitude.

Regardless of its tastelessness…or as I like to think…ahead of its time elegance, Mum carried it in and put it on the table. It spread from one end to the other, hanging over the ends of Mum’s formal dining room table. There might have been a little room for the place settings, but not much. (Remnants of the arrangement appeared for several subsequent Christmas dinners.)

The delivery really didn’t matter. The feeling of putting something in the car and taking it to an awaiting celebration is one of the great feelings in the world.

You leave behind whatever tripe has been creating anxiety in your life and look ahead to the joy in the eyes of the recipient of your thoughtful gifts. The peaceful meditation of driving, allowing the nostalgia of Christmas pasts wash over you, brings the spirit of Christmas into being.

I hope I always have that drive to make.  Alone, with my thoughts and my memories of Christmas past.

The great thing is, if all goes well, you can add a new memory…a laugh, a moment, even a bad floral arrangement to the repertoire of images that will make that Christmas Eve drive so special.

The good news is, Mum really liked her barrel, probably more than a tropical Christmas centerpiece.

Merry Christmas.

Rob Ford’s Icy Highwire Act

 

ice tight rope

Rob Ford may be creeping out on to an icy political high wire by not declaring a state of emergency in Toronto.

There is no doubt people are suffering in the city.

Crews are restoring power, but as of Monday night 200,000 people are still in the cold and the dark with their prospects for heat and light days away. Temperatures are dropping down to -15 tonight. The high on Tuesday won’t climb much above -10.

Premier Kathleen Wynne is keeping a ten foot barge pole firmly in place between her and Canada’s newsmaker of the year, preferring instead to deal with Deputy Mayor Norm Kelly.

Even in the midst of what could become a life and death situation for people in Toronto, is it possible this bizarre political drama is actually interfering with the most basic of needs, the security of citizens?

The anomaly here is once a state of emergency is declared, authority for dealing with the storm falls to the office of the Deputy Mayor, a result of actions taken by council last month to strip Ford of many of his powers.

It’s hard to say whether a state of emergency is actually warranted. Some reports say it’s the advice that’s been given to the mayor and he’s resisting, other reports say the call is actually made by the head of Toronto Hydro and is only enacted by the mayor afterward. Ford says so far, he won’t declare it.

If political advantage is rattling around in the back of Ford’s brain, he should let go of it…pronto. If maintaining power during this crisis and succeeding is gamble Ford is making to reclaim the favour of the folks who find themselves huddling beside unlit Christmas trees, it better be a sure thing.

Bolstering his hand are experts saying that declaring a state of emergency would not bring any meaningful resources to bear on the problem at hand. Hydro says they are restoring power as quickly as possible. This damn well  better be the undisputed truth.

Power utilities have a unique balancing act of their own during situations like this. Nova Scotians will recall the debacle around Hurricane Juan when Nova Scotia Power made predictions to have the power back on within a couple of days and then left people taking cold showers and barbecuing on their back decks for nearly two weeks.

Nova Scotia Power subsequently put in place much more realistic protocols for providing information to customers after they received the brunt of a hurricane of complaints.

The point being, how these emergencies are handled by the hard-working hydro crews is only partly responsible for how the public views the results. How well information gets out and what’s said obviously defines the public perception. Even in natural disaster people want to know who’s responsible for the response.

The Toronto Star predictably is first out of the gate to say Ford is somehow asleep at the switch. The real finger pointing will begin in earnest as this miserable thing drags into the week. In the toxic climate of Toronto politics, it will be cold.

If there is even a hint that politics could cause the heat, lights and transit to be out an hour longer than they should, Mayor Rob Ford, Deputy Mayor Kelly and Premier Wynne will all be getting more than just a cold shoulder from the public.

Because of the public safety stakes involved, for these leaders this could be a very icy tightrope indeed.

Your thoughts?

 

Graham Through the Looking Glass

walrus carpenter 2 Waited in a row

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax—
Of cabbages—and kings—
And why the sea is boiling hot—
And whether pigs have wings.”

– Alice Through the Looking Glass – Lewis Carrol

It wasn’t in iambic pentameter, but Graham Steele’s CBC commentary on an imaginary conversation between Nova Scotia Finance Minister Diana Whalen and staffers that took place ahead of the provincial financial update is hopefully as fictitious as Lewis Carroll’s writing..

The Walrus and Carpenter of Darrell Dexter and Rick Clarke were mercifully absent but Mr. Steele’s fiction was still somewhat discomforting.

In spite of our partisan leanings, I like Graham Steele. In radio interviews with him on matters of public finance, I’ve found him thoughtful and reasonably frank but this recent missive leaves me with a sense he’s…well, feeling a little bitter.

Perhaps if we read between the lines, we can surmise one of the reasons Steele decided to extricate himself from the NDP prior to the recent election. It might be a stretch, but it certainly feels revealing.

Political aides are the target of his piece, characterizing them as witless, meddling politicos leveraging their positions to steer public policy disingenuously away from the greater good and toward partisan advantage.

Communications personnel, if they are very good, advise well. However, we elect officials to weigh that advice. Politicians, at least theoretically, are there to reflect the wishes of their constituents and make sound, tough decisions based on their experience, knowledge and political savvy.

For Steele to insinuate that some communications flack in the Minister’s office is driving our fiscal agenda has the disturbing connotation that he saw that level of influence while he was at the helm of our provincial treasury.

If that is true, one might draw some insight into why he decided to bail out of public life and start writing for the CBC.

My experience as a federal political staffer was quite different. As an example, I remember a conversation I had with Stephen Harper while I was doing communications work when he was leader of the Official Opposition. This particular day I was creating what are known as 10 percenters. Those are the annoying bits of publicly funded, black and white ad mail you get from your MP outlining how great their party is doing in Parliament and asking you to tell them if you think their party is “going in the right direction”.

They are actually a vehicle for you to fill in your name, address, postal code and email to be entered into a database used for voter identification during an election. Your opinions on matters of public policy categorize you as either sympathetic or unsympathetic to the party’s position on some given issue. Oh yeah, and they want your opinion.

In a brief meeting with Harper, I suggested a couple of lines we might use on some issue or another. As someone who has spent the better part of my life in media and communications, I felt confident that I had come up with a catchy line that would capture our position on the policy in question. I had crafted some nifty quote that would be attributed to him, then the Leader of the Official Opposition.

He wasn’t impressed.

Instead Mr. Harper offered, “Jordi, if it comes out of my mouth, feel free to use it.” It’s one of the reason’s I’ve supported him as federal leader for the past decade.

I don’t always agree with the Stephen Harper on all policy nor political approach but I do have confidence what I am hearing on points of public policy emanates from his thinking, the thinking of cabinet and/or the senior bureaucracy, not that of some communications flack.

It may also explain why the job of Director of Communications at the PMO presents, unique.”challenges”.

Leader’s must lead. Love ’em or hate ’em, Ministers are responsible for their decisions. As Mr. Steele rightly states, the decisions being made are complex, need deep thought and should be made with the understanding there is a level of personal accountability.

Unfortunately, in his fictionalized piece, Steele provides the following narrative,

“Don’t worry,” says Aide One. “That’s not the way politics works. If you repeat something often enough, it’s like it becomes true. We’ll just repeat and repeat that it was the last government’s fault. Eventually people will believe it.”

“Yes, I suppose that is politics,” admits the minister.

Hmmm. Sounds surprisingly like a mantra repeated by the Dexter government from 2009 to 2013.

I’m not naive enough to think that partisan politics and political staffers don’t play a role in decisions, but to accept that a Finance Minister would feel it necessary to cave into an agenda created by those writing press releases or a Premier’s Office functionary is deeply concerning.

If this is in fact drawn from Mr. Steele’s experience as Minister of Finance, it’s no wonder he lost his taste for public life.  

It’s also no wonder why the NDP are no longer in power.

Your thoughts?

Pass the Salt: The politics of snow

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“Now is the winter of our discontent.” – W. Shakespeare

While doing talk radio I came to understand the things that irritate the citizenry on a visceral level. Topping the list are garbage collection and snow removal. Two functions the city provides felt directly and immediately. Some of the most lively debates surrounded the transparency of garbage bags. Really.

Snow removal brings everyone together. If streets and sidewalks aren’t cleared quickly and efficiently a fury is unleashed usually reserved for animal abusers and able bodied people who park in handicap zones.

The question is, what is quickly? Politicians are keenly aware of the wrath of the citizenry when their driveway is plowed in, the bus stop is a snowbank, the sidewalk isn’t t cleared and salted and god forbid if the corner crossing isn’t open.

Lousy snow removal in a Canadian city is tantamount to treason. This is Canada dammit. Why don’t those idiots running the city know how to deal with a simple now storm?

Fact is, they do. Things are done much more quickly these days. Remember when cities were paralyzed for days by this stuff.

The problem is, as a population we just don’t have much patience anymore. We drum our fingers waiting for the 3 minute popcorn, grind our teeth because a YouTube video is buffering, bitch about being stuck in tracffic (for 5 or 10 minutes in HRM…talk to someone who drives the Gardiner daily) and when it comes to having our streets cleared, when that last flake is falling, the salt spreaders better be rolling up our street.

Yes there were some problems earlier this week. HRM has taken over snow removal on sidewalks. It was a crappy, snotty mess on the roads and the combination of melting and freezing caused alot of ice. Should they have been spreading salt, probably. Were they prepared for mother nature to act as a giant Zamboni, probably not. Shit happens.

My pal Tim Bousquet from the Coast fell and broke his wrist as the result of ice near Gottingen and North Street. His subsequent article, Sidewalks of Shame is a severe indictment of the ice removal efforts (His comment “Balance is bullshit” in a recent journalism piece by Neal Ozano brought to life). I sympathize with Tim, he’s from California.

Complaining about snow removal is not unique to Halifax. People across our great nation have similar stories to tell about incompetence in getting rid of snow at almost all levels of government. Only the feds seem to come away unscathed on this front as they have people working 24/7 to keep the skateway open on the Rideau Canal. And it’s still kind of bumpy in places.

Perhaps we believe that technology should be able to solve all the problems mother nature flings at us. Urban dewellers see the forces of nature as mere impediments to all the really important things in life, like the buses running on schedule, the street lights working, pizzas being delivered and yes…the immediate removal of all natural impediments to mobility.

Folks in the country seem to have a healthier respect for the forces of winter. Often, when there’s a bad snow storm, like the one I’m looking at out the window, they’ll wait until it ends and then assess what to do with the resultant mess. They realize the road might not get plowed for a while, they might not be able to use the sidewalk for a bit and it might be a good idea to hunker down. With Canaian winters, patience is a virtue.

As for the politicians, they will likely listen to the grumbling, roll their eyes and realize snow removal is unlikely to cause them any problem at the polls. People don’t vote on issues around snow removal or remember them much beyond the time the crocuses appear. It’s just something we put up with and will as long as we carry a Canadian passport.

When it comes to dealing with winter,  take a deep breath and realize, yes we live in Canada, sometimes it’s hard to get around in the winter and everyone is trying to cope with this the best they can.

Why our ancestors decided to settle in this climate, well that’s another question.

The Blacklist: Why NS Business fears government – Part 2

NO…NO…PLEASE DON’T!!!!

This is what I got back after asking to include a couple of paragraphs from a private email response to yesterday’s blog in today’s edition

It is from a well known figure in business circles in the province. They had written to share their concerns over a government practice responsible for hobbling our ability to attract young professionals. It’s an entirely legitimate concern which I will get to in a moment.

What is very revealing is the response. I made a quick call to talk to our friend who I will call “Cautious”. In my conversation with Cautious, we spoke about yesterday’s post in which I wrote about the attitude of bureaucrats and how they will, for all intents and purposes, blacklist people who are publicly critical of government departments or actions. If you are a medical needs supplier, an engineering firm, a lawyer or, for that matter, an asphalt spreader, if you complain publicly about how contracts are awarded or wrong-headed decisions, you and your RFP moves to the bottom of the pile.

What is even more insidious, is the practice of telling other entrepreneurs and business folks if they do business with you, they too can expect to have any potential government work applications moved into the file that gets emptied by cleaners at the end of the night.

The circles aren’t big in this province. Word gets around. Some bureaucrats are now de facto overlords of fiefdoms and the fealty of a grateful private sector supplier is granted in silence. This used to be the purview of elected officials, in Nova Scotia it’s now the realm of the public servants. The mantra to Cabinet Ministers, you’re here for a good time, we’re here for a long time.

Back to the observation of our friend Cautious. They write,

It is a regular occurrence that people retire in one level of government and move to another. What is not understood is that this has two effects: Firstly as they have a pension they artificially deflate the wage market. They drive wages down for everyone. Just ask anyone who does contract work. Secondly they take places that young people with families are applying to and can’t get.
If we want to make REAL and MEANINGFUL change it has to stop.

It is a legitimate concern and a matter of public policy. In other words, something that needs to be addressed through legislation. There are a multitude of examples of people departing the public service in this province, collecting their generous defined benefit pension plan and then moving into high paying executive level job or consultancy positions again fed by public money.

One example is Viki Harnish. Harnish retired after 36 years in the public service after working her way up to Deputy Minister of Finance ( eligible for a maximum salary of $184,000). In a little over a month she landed at the South Shore Health authority as Vice President of Corporate Services. She is this year pulling in a salary of $146,000. Add this to what I calculated is well north of $120,000 per year in pension and Ms. Harnish is happily depositing cheques from the government totaling close to a quarter of a million a year.

Harnish is a well educated, accomplished public administrator so there is little question she is qualified for the job. That’s not the point.

This is only an example. There are multitudes of these folks enjoying truly golden years while other potential contributors to our public service are either leaving or staying away.The problem here is systemic….and being exploited within the political/public service culture.

The problem as identified by our anonymous friend is this;

  • a) We need people in this province. Our population is shrinking and we need strategies to fix it. Recycling ex-bureaucrats into these quality positions is counter-productive.
  • b) With the tight circle of fiefdoms in the public service and its inordinate control over almost all aspects of our economy whether through financial or regulatory levers, too much decision making power is being restricted to too few individuals.

It also has the added benefit of retarding refreshment of the public service. The Harper government brought in federal legislation to prohibit ex-political staff to involve themselves in lobbying for 5 years.

It’s completely fair for business people to raise this issue.

But it’s a scary thing to speak up about if you’re in a business that gets government contracts…or knows somebody who gets government contracts.

And guess what? That’s just about all of us.

What do you think?

PS: I’m still trying to get things figured out on my blog and how comments are posted. I’m a noob at blogging and haven’t quite got the WordPress thing figured out completely…but I’m working on it. I have about 70 responses which I’ve received over the last couple of days so tomorrow I’ll cut and past some of them into a post with some comment from me. If you want to add something…just leave a reply. Thanks for all your input…you’re awesome.

Why Nova Scotia Business Fears Government – Part 1

Businessman with Taped Mouth

Business in Nova Scotia is afraid. Yes, afraid to speak up on important issues of public policy in our province.

Why? Because there is legitimate concern their business might be shut out of what has evolved into our alternate economy. The economy of government expenditure. For some business, speaking out against it could be crippling.

It is a perverse, parochial and counterproductive outcome of our regional reliance on government.

Our economy has become so dependent on the decisions made by provincial bureaucrats and politicians that they now wield power over the private sector that is well beyond their wheelhouse of responsibility.

Companies that have been critical of government policy find themselves blacklisted, hobbled or punished.

What is the result? An important voice driving the direction of this province is effectively gagged.

I’m not talking about shriveling wall flowers here, these are successful business people who simply won’t speak out about stupid municipal and provincial decisions. Instead they talk in hushed tones at cocktail parties and plan workarounds.

For example, why is the development community not more vocal about the way the municipality has handled growth. Because there is a legitimate belief if they were to speak up, the result could be devastating for their bottom line. This wouldn’t happen through public process, these decisions affecting private business are be made deeper in government…by people we don’t vote for.

Joe Metledge, a socially conscious, responsible developer literally tip-toed through the St. Patrick’s-Alexandra fiasco like he was walking on egg shells. He was well within his rights to call out HRM and bitch slap them publicly. Instead, he sucked it up, took a deep breath and started to devise a strategy to make up for the cost of HRM’s ineptitude.

There are organizations built to offer a collective voice for private sector interests. Where are they?

When was the last time you heard a Chamber of Commerce lambaste the provincial government? Even when the NDP was imposing its ill-conceived first contract arbitration, the response was muted at best. And that effort might be the most memorable organized opposition by business to any government action in a very long time.

Cheer leading is great, but sometimes you just have to stand up and call bullshit.

Business people, with occasional inspiring exceptions, don’t want to rock the boat. They’re afraid of being locked out of opportunities stemming from the flow of public cash.

It’s wrong and it’s dangerous.

Entrepreneurs should be able to speak freely, publicly and loudly about the direction of this province…without fear of retribution.

At one time, business could contribute significantly to political parties through donations. This provided some leverage in the development of policy. The decision to do away with large donations by corporations and unions was the right one. We can all agree it’s wrong to allow influence of government to be bought.

On the other hand, the voice of the private sector mustn’t be gagged. What we are left with is an ethos in this province that the only things worthy of support emanate from the public sector.

The saviour of this province is not our government. It is our entrepreneurs, the start-ups, the small businesses looking to innovate and create wealth. They are the people, who will drive this province into prosperity…let’s hear them speak loudly and clearly without having to fear the wrath of some bitter bureaucrat or vengeful politician.

If you have a story, let me know.

Weekend addition

I’m normally not going to blog on the weekend but my hour-and-a-half drive with my son Angus today led me to post this.

Angus is in grade 8 and he is studying WWII in social studies. We spent the drive talking about the Canadian contribution to the war effort.

His late grandfather, Jack Morgan fought in the Battle of the Atlantic as a signal officer in the RCN and was an officer on a Bangor Class Minesweeper clearing mines ahead of the assault on Omaha Beach. His great-uncle, George Slipp, dropped with the Canadian Airborne on D-Day.

Our conversation came as the result of his viewing of the film, WWII in Colour, a remarkable collection of colourized footage. It’s not new, but is certainly worth exploring as it’s available on YouTube.

As anyone with children knows, YouTube is quickly becoming the default source of information and entertainment for kids born after 1995. His teacher’s use of this resource in class is a great example using the Internet to give valuable access to important teaching tools.

While on Maritime Morning, I spent a considerable amount of time talking about education in Nova Scotia and at times was critical of the efficacy of the curriculum. I have always believed our teachers in Nova Scotia need better tools online to prepare our kids.

Kudos to his Social Studies teacher at for recognizing this excellent resource which allows kids to explore important material at home.

When we got home we spent the better part of an hour watching the episode on the war in the Pacific and talking about its impact. It’s great quality time and beats the hell out of looking at Vines.

If you would like to check out The Second World War in Colour video below .

If you’d like to read more thoughtful exploration of education in Nova Scotia and beyond, please visit the blog of Paul Bennett at Schoolhouse Consulting.

The Canada…post Canada Post…post

What would Canada be like, post Canada Post? That fateful day when letter mail was delivered by someone other than Crown Corporation employees. Apocalyptic? zombie postman Hmm, no.

I admit, for some perverse reason, I like my Canada Post home delivery. I rifle through the the usual assortment of poorly designed, ineffective direct mail pieces, pizza flyers, credit card offerings, the odd subscription request from magazines I don’t want, bills and sometimes, rarely, a postcard or letter.

Receiving anything I actually want in the mail (a cheque) happens only once or twice a year. In truth, for the most part, anything I get in the mail is usually an annoyance or worse, something from a lawyer or CRA.

Canada Post announced yesterday they will now charge more for their “service” by jacking stamps up to a dollar…and whacking urban home delivery, something suburban and rural dwellers here in the Maritimes have come to accept. Nothing says “service” like forcing seniors out in -30 degree weather to collect hand-delivered recycling.

Mercifully, no longer is the Canadian public being extorted by our beloved mail service at Christmas time. Those old enough to remember a world without texting, will also fondly remember masses of posties milling around burn barrels every second November demanding wages and working condition normally reserved for tenured professors. This while grandmothers from Tofino to Bonavista fretted and fumed over packages and cards held in public sector purgatory. Not to speak of the UI cheques.

We haven’t seen much of that of late. Presumably because if Canada Post went on strike today, the impact would be mitigated. Bills would get paid online, UPS, FedEx, Purolator, Altimax, et al would pick up Grannie’s presents and direct deposit would handle the pay cheques and EI payments. It would be an irritant to business but there are effective alternatives and work-arounds available.

On the other hand, we might have to live without a “holiday” letter from an MPs defending the legislative requirements demanded of Canada Post to deliver it. Damn.

Interestingly, Canada Post CEO Deepak Chopra, ($450,000 to $500,000 per annum), also sits on the Conference Board of Canada, the think-tank credited for hatching the idea of pressing delete on urban delivery. Canada Post insists this notion came from inside the Corporation and they take complete ownership of the dollar stamp idea. Neither, however, seems to address sustainability or the bigger picture.

From yesterday’s announcement we can draw that Canada Post’s answers to diminishing customers and revenue are  a) a reduction in service and b) an increase in price. Interesting theory.

Perhaps instead of trying to figure out ways to create a lousier business that fewer people use, it might finally be time to accept the current model of the Royal Mail monopoly is as anachronistic as its 150 year-old predecessor…and the federal government needs to rewrite the law and open up letter carriage to full competition. The National Post‘s Andrew Coyne effectively makes the case.

The Chair of the Board of Canada Post, Marc Courtois, built a career in the field of financing, mergers and corporate acquisitions…maybe it’s time he could put that impressive CV to work. Crack open this stale institution, break it up and allow in the fresh air of market forces.

One of the possible positive outcomes? Santa’s Elves could concentrate on what they’re best at and letters to the North Pole won’t be returned for a misspelled address.

It should be noted, Santa is on Twitter.

What do you think?

By the way, I’d be interested to know if in the future, you’d like to hear an audio version of my blog with relevant interviews and such…let me know in the contact box below your thoughts on a podcast. Would you listen to it?

Don’t worry, I won’t do anything with your email address other than use it to reply to you.

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